Name: Jackson Hrbek
Nationality: Australia and United States
University: The University of Melbourne
Degree: Finance and Economics
Languages spoken: English, French (advanced) and Danish (intermediate)
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Microfinance and Income Generation in Pnhom Penh, Cambodia
Duration: 11 weeks
Start month: April 2015
Claim to fame: 1.5 months solo backpacking in Europe, visiting Switzerland, France, Greece, Spain and Portugal
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I had just finished my commerce degree at the University of Melbourne, and was looking for something totally different compared to what I was used to in my old student life. I had never been interested by those run-of-the-mill internships offered by so many financial institutions, but I was looking to gain some kind of experience in what I had studied for the past 3 years. After hearing about volunteer opportunities in the field of micro-finance, I immediately started looking into my options, and after finding UBELONG’s micro-finance programme in Cambodia, I knew it was perfect for me. I would be able to challenge myself in the programme, stepping-in to a totally different way of life and experience a whole range of different perks, all whilst gaining experience in what I had spent so much time studying. Becoming a UBELONG volunteer was the perfect opportunity for me based on what I was looking for and what I wanted to do at that time of my life.
The thought of volunteering in Cambodia was also a reason to spur me on. I had always seen South-East Asia as a challenge, particularly for myself, and I knew I would face many challenges. Cambodia was a country I knew very little about, apart from its muddied history and famed Angkor complex, but I knew there was more to uncover. Becoming a UBELONG volunteer was the ultimate way for me to learn about, become enveloped by, and embrace a totally different culture and way of life, which really helps build character. Ultimately, I chose to become a UBELONG volunteer because I knew I would have an incredibly memorable experience, living in a new and exciting country, and helping further a worthy cause as best I could.
What was your impact on your volunteer project?
As part of the micro-finance in Phnom Penh, I worked at the head office of a small NGO which offered loan services to the heavily marginalized through their branch, and a food program, where sustainable partnerships were built with banana farmers to buy produce for a fair price and make banana chips without exploiting workers. Although very small, and very reliant on donations, their reach goes far, extending as far north as the border province of Preah Vihear, offering their services to thousands of Cambodian locals.
As part of my program, the majority of my time in Cambodia was spent developing an educational guide and reference point for the branch’s team regarding financial performance ratios. Together with another volunteer from the U.S., we introduced many performance ratios, measuring sustainability, asset/liability management, efficiency, and loan portfolio quality, explaining what they could reveal, how to calculate them, and detailed how the NGO could best use them in their ongoing operations. We offered some basic target figures for each ratio, and explained why these were chosen, whilst also calculating some of the ratios for the NGO based on information provided to us. Furthermore, we offered what we called ‘action plans’ which detailed how they could best respond in the event of an undesirable figure for a particular ratio. In all, our 34 page report went on to be printed and copied and distributed to all their offices around Cambodia, to help educate the accountants and loan officers, and as a reference point for future calculations and auditing.
After this report was completed, I helped develop a template for the monthly financial reports are studying previous monthly reports. I made comments on old reports regarding where clarification should be made, or where more detail was required, and used these comments to build a formal guide for writing these monthly reports, so they were as detailed and succinct as possible. After I wrote this guide, I made the template so that they could easily write these reports when needed, whilst also introducing the new ratios from the previous report into the template.
I like to think that I helped this branch, and the NGO as a whole, become much more aware of their own long-term performance and sustainability. Without this sense of efficiency and a long-term view, the NGO may not be best able to provide their much needed services to the Cambodian people in the future. By helping to improve their branch’s ability to monitor their own performance, sustainability can be more assured, and the NGO’s future becomes more certain and secure.
What were your major challenges?
By the far the most challenging thing, at least for me, about living in Cambodia was the culture shock. The fact that I knew very little about Cambodia, which is arguably a good thing too, meant I was very under-prepared for what I would face in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is a big, sprawling, bustling, loud and chaotic city, and a city which is purely for people to work in. The April and May heat, pushing 40°C (~100°F) everyday, is exhausting and hard to cope with upon arrival. Living in a country which has so much different to what you are used to takes time to adapt to. Food is different, streets are different, shops are different, and the language barrier is large. The first week was particularly difficult for me to get used to my new home for 11 weeks – the heat, the noise, the new way of life, but the most important thing that helped me overcome this difficult was to find my rhythm, as I would say. I would find a pattern to my daily life, find places I could go to to hang-out and work and escape the bustle of the city (and there are plenty of places in Phnom Penh to escape to) and find your own way of living like a ‘local’. Once I found my rhythm, I was used to all the things Phnom Penh would present me with, and I tried my best to embrace each new opportunity that I came across, even if they were challenging. Perhaps the best way to cope with these challenges is with the other volunteers at the house or in your program. I made some great friends from all over the world during my time in Cambodia, and you really do find comfort when you start exploring the country and city with the other volunteers.
One thing, however, that is particularly obvious after stepping-out of the airport in Phnom Penh is the steep level of poverty that exists in the country, and the persistent divide that exists between any Westerner and the Cambodian people. I can remember on my ride from the airport to the volunteer house, we drove a long a little ‘river’, through a poor area of the city. The river was putrid, yet people were living along its banks, trying to make a living selling bottled water or some kind of snack food, or picking rubbish up to sell later on. This is quite a shocking and challenging thing to witness on your first day, but it is unfortunately a common site throughout Cambodia. It can be difficult to accept that these levels of poverty exist in the country, and even harder to accept that there is very little that you, as a volunteer and visitor to the country, can directly do to help mitigate the effects of poverty on a large scale. However, the best way I found of helping myself deal with this was to buy the basic things, like water, at smaller vendors, often run by the poorer people, to help give them an income so they can have food, water and shelter.
How would you sum up your experience?
My volunteer experience in Cambodia was no doubt challenging. I faced many obstacles during my 11 weeks, including a few days in the hospital, food challenges, adapting to the chaos of Phnom Penh and my temporary new way of life. However, I am so glad that I was able to volunteer and complete my program. It is absolutely a rewarding experience, both personally and in terms of the cause you help. I do not regret for one second my time in Cambodia, and am so thankful I willed myself enough to take up the chance at this opportunity and go and do something I never would have considered doing before. The things that I have learnt, the culture I have experienced, and the stories that I have to tell will stay with me forever, and I will always look back on my time in Cambodia as an ultimately positive one, as I was able to develop so much in character. I’ve become more confident when faced with challenges in my life based on what I lived through and had to deal with in Phnom Penh, and the experience that I gained through the micro-finance volunteer program is so unique and so valuable to me.
I am so glad I chose to undertake this programme in Cambodia, because I have witnessed first-hand a country that is changing rapidly, and I got to live through so many incredible and unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience, such as Khmer New Year at Angkor. Although it was not easy at times, the challenges that I faced helped make my time in Phnom Penh so much more memorable.